Pimp my Garden

Now that is a show I might actually watch!  Instead, I will work on the pilot episode right here in South Central Wisconsin.  Steady readers will know of my successes and my struggles as I try to eke out produce from the denuded, dead soil that are so common here in HOA land.  Our first garden in 2005 was pathetic – corn 3′ tall in soil completely devoid of anything resembling fertility or life.  Within two years we were harvesting over 500#’s from that soil as we worked in organic matter: composting anything that didn’t move fast enough to escape the manure fork.   I read voraciously of Coleman, Permaculture, and Jeavons on how to maximise productivity and most importantly build soil.  That success whet my appetite for more – so in 2008 we branched up to a market garden at a permaculture farm north of here.  We grew 1500#s of potatoes and another 500#’s of spinach, squash tomatoes, flour corn and peppers and became “professional” growers turning a tidy little profit and paying for capital investments in my Grillo and other tools.  But man is ever one to push his limits – and all the time away from the home gardens came to haunt me in a massive insurgence of Quack Grass completely overrunning my now fertile garden beds by the end of 2008.  But I gave it little heed – I had grown 200,000 calories!  I was a FARMER at last.

Over the winter I planned ever grander schemes at the Market Gardens – almost doubling the potential harvest.  Gently voiced concerns from my wife, and many others, about time at home and sheer physical limitations began to add strength to that little, all too easily squelched, voice in my head whispering hubris! and tales of Icarus. And then, for better or worse, I separated my shoulder joint in June playing soccer and was forced to take the month of July to reflect on what I had done.   At home the quack was winning on all fronts, my kids were asking -daily- if I would be home the next day, and the lambsquarter at the Market Garden were taller than me.  My wings were melting in the sun.

Thanks to more than a little help from my friends, we got the Market Gardens back into shape.  My wife, unable to let the home gardens descend any further into The Abyss, reasserted herself as the Real Gardener in the family taking the home gardens and making them shine.   Her plants are out producing mine by significant margins.  We won some rear guard actions against the quack and secured 20 bales of straw and 20#’s of clover seed to hold our ground and Dig In.  Now, the potato harvest is coming in strong, we’ve put up record amounts of pickles, jam, and sauce, and Late Blight has taken care of the overabundance of tomatoes I planted.  We will not do any fall crops this year- opting rather to trade potatoes for storage crops of squash and turnips.

Back to the home garden.  It is stable, but is in need of an overhaul.  It is currently very productive – with great soil tilth and growing organic matter content.  But it takes far too much work due to the fact that all 7 60 sq ft beds are surrounded by field stone to protect them from the rushing waters that come down the swale (half our backyard) in heavy rains.  Those 7 beds add up to over 400′ of edge that I have to weed whip weekly and 400′ that the quack can get in under.  Also, the beds are separated by paths that are 3-4′ wide – meaning I have almost as much path space as growing space.  Because the quack comes in every spring / fall I literally have to tear down the field stone border of each bed (1000#’s of stone), turn it all, and sift out the rhizomes.  It sucks.  It also takes a month of weekends – time I don’t have.

So in the next month we’re going to Pimp My Garden.  Ever wondered what garden you would make if you “knew then what you know now?” Here is my answer:

The field stone is getting yanked – all 4 tons of it- and piled up somewhere – maybe to be a root cellar or stone oven someday.  The fertile soil will get pulled out, piled and covered with straw to protect the ecosystem some.   Then the subsoil, along with all the paths will get “grillo’d” to a depth of 1′ using the rotary plow to chop up the quack rhizomes.  After that bakes  in the sun for a week, it will get grillo’d again with a tiller, and I will dig a trench 1′ thick along the entire perimeter.  The new garden will be a giant “box”: 32’x40′ built of 15 reclaimed douglas fir timbers 3″x12″x16′ long each weighing over 50#’s, terraced 4 times to match the slope of my yard.  To the bottom of these, and extending down into the trench I plan giving the quack grass The Finger and laying a rhizome barrier.  Perhaps 12″ roofing flashing, but maybe just 6 mil plastic.  Eff you Quack.

Then the tilled up sub soil will get sprinkled with blood meal and onto this I will pile as much manure as I can get – I have sources lined up from a veritable Ark of livestock: Horse, Cow, Llama, Worm, and Chicken -networking is a fine thing!.  Its a good thing too, as I will need 50 cu yards of it to fill the bed!!  The manure will then be inoculated with 50 gallons of forest / prairie soil for microbes and 20 gallons of red wigglers from Growing Power, 200#’s of Green Sand for mineral balancing and better veggie nutrition.  This will then covered with pallet sheets of cardboard  2 layers thick (1/2″) and the soil piled back in with a VERY careful eye paid to any quack rhizomes.   Then the whole works gets planted to rye/vetch/field pea mix under a light straw mulch.

Finally, a 5′ “moat” will be tilled around the gardens and replanted to white dutch clover as a living quack barrier.  If I have any energy or time left before November -very doubtful- I would like to plant several hundred flowering natives and perennials around this barrier as well for beauty and beneficials, but that will likely be in the spring or later.

When done, the garden space will have almost tripled to 1000′ of growing space (1:20th of my lot) due to extending the beds by 12′ in length and removing much of the path space.  My edge will have dropped from 400′ to 160′ and the quack will be dealt a Deathblow.  In addition, I will have soil of unbelievable richness and fertility and 10 3′ “beds” of 100 sq ft to play with.  Perhaps I will be able to be no-till by 2011 after I pull the last vestiges of quack out in 2010…  But most importantly it will allow us to shift everything but the potato crop back to our home gardens – keeping me at home and allowing me to share my learnings with our children to teach them these vital skills – or just to be home to see their latest Lego ship or crayon drawing.

This will be a shit ton of work, but I will be in Hog Heaven as there is nothing I like better than building soil: schlepping manure, inoculating,  sheet mulching and running my Grillo.  Plan is one month of weekends, maybe 3 weekends if the weather holds. Also, the kids can help and it will all be in my own backyard rather than 10 miles away. This will be a Garden of Legend.

I will grow 2000#’s of food in my own yard …with the help of my mini Permaculture Orchard and edible landscaping.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Kennebec Poatoes i.e. The Lunker Spud

Moose Tubers bills the Kennebec as a potato capable of throwing some “lunkers”.  It is also known for being fairly simple to grow and an easy potato to cook with -good for everything from frying to baking to boiling.  Easy to grow and easy to cook -plus it produces big spuds?  I’m sold.

I am less than 15% of the way into my Kennebec patch, but I can personally confirm the “Lunker” claim.  In 60#’s of harvest potatoes this evening, I had 8 spuds over 1# each and 1 monster that broke 2#!  Also, we have a new Record Holder in the 1 Plant Harvest contest:

4 lbs 13 oz.  from one Kennebec Plant.  Top Left is 1# 1oz Top Right is 1# 13 oz!

4 lbs 13 oz. from one Kennebec Plant. Top Left is 1# 1oz Top Right is 1# 13 oz!

DANG are those some big spuds!  The “small” potatoes to the left would be considered larger than average Yukons.  Pretty impressed!  The 25′ tape is 3.25″ long for reference.   Unfortunately, the crop seems to be a bit sporadic – some plants are barely hitting 1# – the July drought came at a really bad time.  The plants that did well were in patches of mycorrhizal fungus that must have added to their water / nutrient intake – a trend I have seen all season and last.  Again, these potatoes were grown with no irrigation and no amendments other than a rye/vetch cover and over wintering 100 laying hens on the plot – about as close to zero input as possible.

It was great to have some good news  – tomorrow I am dropping my tomato tissues off at the Ag Extension for positive ID – but am fairly certain its Late BLight.  Also looks like it is hitting my other plot some too.  That sucks.

Again, good to have such huge potatoes to lighten the mood – baked potato for 3 anyone?

-Rob

@#$%!’n Late Blight

tomato, late blight 181-018Short post -I’m itchy and sweaty from working until dusk next to a tree line.  See, I just came back from destroying 30% of my Tomato crop due to an almost certain infection of Late Blight.  I spent this evening tearing out the plants and throwing them onto a 120sq ft rubber mat which I then covered with greenhouse plastic – I love what you can find in farm sheds in a pinch.  This I will let cook for several days to solarize the infected plants, and then I will likely burn the residue.   The burning is prolly overkill – so lets call it revenge…

For reasons I am still pondering it seems to have contained itself to one portion of my tomato crop.  Hypothesis is that this planting of ‘maters was the most suseptible – it was in a sheltered area that did not see much wind at all being between my hoop house and a 20′ tall tree line.  Furthermore, on each side of the tomatoes I had some VERY vigorous three sisters going – 7′ tall corn (no fertilizer!!) and 30′ pumpkin vines about 2’ tall – again further reducing the winds ability to get in.  Why is the wind important?  The dew would linger much longer on this planting allowing any Blight Spores to get a toehold.  That is my theory.

Learnings / Thank Gods (as long as I contained the infection):

  • Seperated plantings – I had 42 tomato plants of 7 varieties total.  Those 42 plantings are in 4 spots – all seperated by at least 1 plant family and 15 yards (I realize I have alot of space)
  • Plant resistant cultivars.  This year I purchased 3 blight resistant potato varieties (Elba, Nicola, Island Sunshine) on a hunch, and out of sheer luck 2 of those are surrounding my infected plants.
  • Walk your fields.  With under .25 acres this isn’t too hard, but get out every week and walk every row with an observant eye.  I watched this infection spread in growing horror for 4 days until I was convinced it was Late Blight – and maybe – just maybe – contained it in my tomatoes before it got into my spuds.

This infection cost me about 200#’s of tomatoes, but fingers crossed that my  scorched earth actions tonight are enough to hold it to my 12 martyrs.

-Rob

Fungus Farming

Last weekend I went to a mycoremediation workshop in Madison and learned a ton about inoculating mulches with mushroom spawn, and was even able to score three bags of Oyster Mushroom spawn for my own projects.  Here is a photo journey through my first project.  Site selection was a bit tricky – I would prefer to have a shaded moist spot, but as we are still less than 5 years in this home and all our trees are under 15′, we have no shade to speak of other than the north side of our home – and that space is taken with my “recycling center” of compost bins and vermiculture area.  Instead I chose a spot on the east end of my large rain garden which is situated on the west end of my home.  It will be shaded until about 11am and then become shaded again at about 4.   That is likely too much sun, but I get volunteer mushrooms in similar sites in the gardens, so I am willing to give it a try.  More importantly – with its proximity to the rain garden it will be moist more often than not.  I am even hoping that the mycelium will creep into the rain garden’s mulch and help filter that water as well.

First off you will need some Mushroom Spawn:

 

.5 gallons of Oyster Mushroom spawn in a sawdust medium - the white is mycelium.

.5 gallons of Oyster Mushroom spawn in a sawdust medium - the white is mycelium.

Once that is in hand, you will need something to grow it in:

 

3/4 yard of wood chip mulch from our municipal yard

3/4 yard of wood chip mulch from our municipal yard

Yep – I tow with a VW Golf.  With the TDI engine’s torque and an upgraded Bilstein/H&R suspension it can handle over 1500#’s.  Now that I have the growing medium and the spawn for innoculating, it was time to prep the ground.  In this case I scraped the area down to the top soil to remove any Quack rhizomes:

 

The bed is about 15' long and 1-3' wide.

The bed is about 15' long and 1-3' wide.

Scraping it wasn’t really necessary, but I wanted a clean start.  Next up I laid down a mat of clean straw.  The thought here is that straw is easily digested by the fungus, and the long pieces act like a highway for the mycelium and help it to spread very quickly:

 

Wheat and Oat straw...16 bales free!  Thank you Craigslist!

Wheat and Oat straw...16 bales free! Thank you Craigslist!

If you hadn’t noticed, I chose the morning after a rain for this project – the straw and mulch were already fairly damp and I soaked each layer well before moving on. Once the straw was laid out about 1/2-1″ thick, I threw down a layer of municipal wood chips about 2-3″ thick and crumpled about 30% of the spawn into this:

 

Mixed wood chips - pine and hardwood plus some green leaves and twigs

Mixed wood chips - pine and hardwood plus some green leaves and twigs

The mulch is not ideal for mushroom growing – it had lain on the municipal pile for over a week and likely other fungus had begun to colonize it.  Also, it was composting on site, and the cooler sections were a bit moldy.  All of these would typically be a no-no for starting a fungus bed (clean, fresh chips free of mold are best), but Oyster Mushrooms are allegedly hyper aggressive and typically out compete most everything so I worked with what I had.  I repeated the steps 3 more times: Straw, water, Mulch+inoculant, water and then finally capped the now 1′ tall mound with a thick layer of straw to act as a mulch to keep the inner chips moist and shaded:

 

Viola!  Total time including running for chips was under 1 hour.

Viola! Total time including running for chips was under 1 hour.

It is possible that I will see mushrooms this fall as Oysters typically fruit in the Autumn, but more likely it will be 2010.  I have also used another packet under one of my Peach Tree guilds.  There I am less concerned about  eating the mushrooms, rather I would like to have them colonize the mulch and I will let them drop spores to hopefully naturalize to some degree to improve the soil fertility in that bed.

This was an uber simple project – total time was under an hour.  If you would like to start a bed of your own, I highly recommend Fungi Perfecti as a source of spawn and information.  Very helpful folks!  Fungus Farming is a great method to function stack in odd places in your yard – producing mineral rich food while drastically increasing the soil’s diversity and fertility with little effort.  What’s not to like?

Be the Change!

-Rob

Potato Towers Month 4!

Yeah, you got that right.  Month FOUR.  Potatoes are supposed to be half dead, wretched looking things at much past 90 days, but tower #1 went  in Apil 27 and is still vibrant and strong.  The spuds I field planted at the same time have only wispy desiccated brown leaves left – some are already decomposed.  Here is Tower 1:

Tower #1 Month 4With almost 3′ of root zone, This tower could be very productive if the theory holds.  Flowering for the 4th or 5th time – the repeated deep hilling as levels are added to the tower is acting like a “reset button” for the life cycle of the plant: each time it will stop flowering, and put more energy into growth and converting the former stalk to root.  My one concern is when to let the top growth go – I figure it will take a syck amount of leaf area to produce enough sugars to grow 25-50#’s of potatoes.  The main reason the plants die back is that they are pulling all their sugar into the tubers and there is no where near enough leaf are to do that now – will the longer season have offset that?  This may be the last rung on this tower and I have hit it with Fish Emulsion to give it some boost.  Still very little pest or disease pressure – though the University Extension just sent out a Late Blight (of Potato Famine Fame) bulletin – it’s in Wisconsin and stiking terror into all us organic potato growers – it can wipe out a field in as little as a week.

Towers 2/3, which went in 2 months later, are doing fine with one variety – I believe its the Purple Viking- having about 6″ more growth (1 rung).

 

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone.  These guys are vigorous!

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone. These guys are vigorous!

 

Tower 2.  Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

Tower 2. Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

At the same time I put in Towers 2/3 I also planted a double row of Purple Viking in a Straw mulch.  Initial Results were very solid, but the limits of this system are becoming apparrent.

 

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling".  5 Gallon bucket for scale.

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling". 5 Gallon bucket for scale.

The issue I am having now is that the bed is getting freaky wide- the straw keep sloughing off to the sides as I try to add height. this is about the limit I think I can reach without adding an insane amount of straw to the outside of the bales- I have already lost 2/3’s the path on each side.  If yields are good, next year I can see “fencing” the bed with full bales to give it some structure, “hilling” with loose straw inside, and post harvest turning the whole thing into a giant sheet mulch or fungus bed.  Again, this could be a VERY productive way to de-lawn a hundred square feet of your lawn over 18 months.

On a final note, here is a shot of what the yeilds of the towers will be up against:

 

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

This is the best yield for one plant (3 sq ft) so far.  At this rate, a tower will beat field spuds in yield per sq. ft at bout 5#’s per tower.  Expecting the bar to go up as I harvest the higher yielding cultivars like Kennebec and Purple Viking.  Still, this was a GREAT yeild for one Yukon plant.  My challenge in the field is to figure out how to ge this much (about 2.25x normal) from each plant!

Weather remains crazy mild – we have yet to break 90 ?! — and extraordinarily dry.  My sunchokes and Cupplant are withered and dropping leaves – these are hardy native perennials.  Even the week with 1″ of rain only bought a brief reprieve – the soil is dry down several feet and will likely not recharge until winter.  That said, the humus rich soil at the market gardens are doing much better.  The yukon yield above is from an unirrigated plot.  Yet another reason I like to plant spuds early to take advantages of the June rains.  The Late Plantings will likely suffer significantly in tuber weight due to the low rain.  On the flip side – tomato flavor is UNREAL since the fruits are not nearly as watery.

  While the shoulder injury has been a pain, it has really forced me to SLOW DOWN which has had the benifit of increasing that most important farming / permaculture skill of observation.  If I am only harvesting at 50#’s an hour v. 100#’s I spend more time looking at pest damage, tracking soil moisture and tilth, and just plain thinking which is making me a better person.  A time to reap, and a time to sow…

Be the Change!!

-Rob

Fungus Among Us

I went to a very cool workday in Madison yesterday at Edgewood College – we had everyone from arboritsts to Biology Professors to certified Permaculturists to co-op living, bike trailer building 20 somethings.  GREAT sidebar discussion and I am trading 50#’s of potatoes for a custom co-op built cargo bike trailer!  The purpose of the event was to install a mycoremediation bed to filter some of the runoff from their parking lots that drains almost directly into Lake Wingra. The thought behind mycoremediation is that fungus is really good at breaking down tough strings of carbon (cellulose and lignin in nature) – and most petro chemical pollutants – even chlorine- have similar properties so fungus breaks them down to.  We built a series of three swales on contour in the runoff gulley and then layered oyster mushroom spawn in 8″ deep beds of chip mulch and sawdust.  The hope is that the 1000 sq ft of mushroom bed will filter some of the water (most in a light rain) that runs down the gulley and bio-remediate the oil slicks into smaller, non-toxic carbon molecules.  Part of the project was to add a small holding pond for water testing, which the Prof of Biology will take samples from.  Very cool way to spend a morning!

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Looking upstream at our handy-work. Burlap is covering a grass mix to anchor the berms.

In preparation for the event, I did a bit of research on fungus in general and mycoremediation in particular.  From reading the Permaculture Canon and especially from Edible Forest Gardening I had certainly picked up that fungus cultures were important for a healthy soil, but somehow had either missed or the authors didn’t tell, the “Why’s”.  I still feel that most organic and permaculture gardening texts spend most of their sections on soil healthy detailing the ecology that is found in compost bins – heavy on bacteria and micro organisms, and really skip through the importance of fungus.  The long and short of it was that in 30 minutes of Google Research I had an epiphany.

Here is my sophomoric understanding of how it works.   Fungus produces extracellular enzymes to break down the lignin and cellulose (or oil drippings by the way).  Once the enzymes have broken down the carbon chains into something more palatable, the fungus then absorbs them through their mycelial net.  Some – like mycorrhizal fungus then share the nutrients with plants for sugar in a rather direct symbiosis.  But what I suspect, and will read Stament’s Mycelium Running to determine, is that as the enzyme work is done in the soil, the carbon chains are broken down enough that perhaps many plant roots can absorb them directly providing immediate boosts to their nutrient uptake.  

This would explain why trees and other large perennials  prefer to live in “carbonaceous” soils under a thick leaf / chip mulch.  A thick carbon intensive mulch often becomes colonized by fungus which ties it into a thick mat of mycelium.   In the past I had thought that this would only be directly beneficial to the plants if the funugs was mycorrhizal or after the fungus began to itself decay.  Now, with my glimpse into the enzyme secretions of  fungus, I think that it may have much more immediate and far reaching effects -placing them in far more important place in the soil ecosystem that fungus typically gets credit for.  I am beginning to understand how people become fungus fundamentalists (fungamentalists?).

When I discovered this Saturday night I was became animated and was talking gibberish so fast that my wife thought I was joking.  Epiphanies are like that.  Looking forward to getting to Mycelium Running in my queue, but I also scored 3 bags of oyster mushroom spawn (we had 150) from the workshop so I can begin expirements here as well.  Woo-Hoo!

Be the Change.

-Rob

And now for something completely different

At times I have felt that I am living my life one slogan / lyric / bumper sticker at time.  I don’t think that is so strange – it seems that humanity has a penchant for aphorisms – heck Nietzsche wrote entire books of them.  For some reason I was feeling especially introspective this morning and many of my favorite aphorisms seemed to be jumping to mind.  To not lose the moment I captured some of them, took some license, and ended up with this.  One could have some fun trying to track the originals all down…

 

Knowing / Fighting

We have the Tools, we have the Talent.

Actions always speaking louder than words.

Everyone must eat, but cannot live on bread alone.

Never doubt small groups of dedicated individuals.

 

Wings of butterflies changing the weather.

Stones that gather no moss – catch me if you can!

The answer is blowing in the wind, but

God helps those that help themselves.

 

Journeys begin with a step, and these boots were made for walking.

Great ideas start in the muscles, so work hard at something worth doing.

This work doesn’t kill, now so much stronger.

All the better to get busy living, lest stay busy dying.

 

Great responsibility tags along with incredible power.

Surrender?  I have yet to begin to fight!

Every tool a weapon, just you hold it right.

And they ain’t taking me without a fight.

 

-Rob

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